After his mother died, Kaloku Holt considered just packing it in. Many of the organizers of the Ke Kukui Foundation were in favor of taking a break of at least a year from staging their big annual Polynesian festival in Esther Short Park, he said.
That’s an annual tradition launched 17 years ago by Holt’s mother, the late “Aunty” Deva Yamashiro, a Hawaiian native and hula dancer who moved here and appointed herself a cultural ambassador. She wanted to make sure her children, and everybody’s children, could continue learning and enjoying Hawaii’s unique aloha spirit here on the mainland.
But after Yamashiro died of cancer almost two years ago, her son wondered whether to continue that mission. Holt’s a full-time musician who’s accustomed to traveling, not staying put. But he’d also just started a family with his girlfriend in Hawaii, Alyssa Reyes, and the couple knew real roots were in order. Nothing would have been easier than simply settling down in Hawaii, they said.
What changed their minds? They watched Yamashiro cuddling her new grandson, Oku, for a few precious months before she died, Holt said. “I saw in that hospital bed the whole circle of life, one leaving and one just arriving,” he said. “It just woke me up to what my mom knew the whole time.
“It’s just not about me anymore. It’s about him. It’s about everybody. It hit me that my purpose in life is to keep building what my mom built. To make it even greater.”
Community sentiment encouraged that feeling, too, he said. To this day, the occasional stranger will still pull him aside to gush gratitude for Aunty Deva’s inspirational presence in their lives — as a personal friend, a hula teacher or both. “I had people recognizing me in elevators,” he said. ” ‘You’re Aunty Deva’s son!’ ”
A traditional blessing from Aunty Deva is what sealed the deal in the end. “She wanted me to continue the foundation and the festival,” he said. “She thought I have what it takes, and I want to keep making her proud.”
“I was happy in Hawaii, but I was going back and forth teaching hula,” Reyes said. “When Aunty Deva died, that would have left a big void. We knew we had to settle here.”
The couple recently bought a home just a few minutes away from the Ke Kukui Foundation’s new Salmon Creek office and community center — where the group offers ongoing education in hula, music, history and more. During an interview at the office, Holt said: “We live right here.”
Even more aloha
Attendance at the Ke Kukui Foundation’s main annual event, its big midsummer festival in Esther Short Park, has soared to as many as 30,000 in recent years, Holt said, and he’s expecting it to soar even more this weekend. Sunday has finally been added to what’s always been a Thursday-through-Saturday event, he said — so the official title has now expanded from three to Four Days of Aloha in the Pacific Northwest.
Much of the multifaceted festival is exactly the same as before, Holt said, only bigger and better. Music, dance and craft workshops that began July 25 continue July 26, led by talents visiting from Hawaii and elsewhere — like master hula teacher Vicky Holt Takamine (Holt’s aunt) and Keali’i Reichel, a celebrated Hawaiian singer-songwriter and cultural ambassador who has shared stages with the likes of Sting and Bonnie Raitt. Check the website (hawaiianfestivalpnw.com/) to see what’s still available, then hustle down to Clark College before 9 a.m. July 26 to register and pay for a same-day session. Prices begin at $65.
Students in some of those workshops will take the stage during the festival’s main events, beginning at 5 p.m. July 26 in Esther Short Park with the Hapa Haole hula and music competition. That’s a showcase of music and dance drawn from the days when western and Hawaiian cultures cross-pollinated in a sweet-and-breezy pop music style — tunes like “Little Grass Shack” and “Hukilau.” That era is defined as 1900 through 1959, but this year the Hapa Haole competition will also include more modern sounds and hula styles.
The free festival continues on July 27 and, for the first time this year, July 28. Music and dance by local groups, visiting groups and visiting celebrities will keep the Esther Short Park stage busy while the rest of the park hosts children’s activities, arts and crafts, food vendors and more.
Bring a low-backed chair or blanket and get ready to get filled up with what Hawaiians call the spirit of aloha.
If You Go
What: Four Days of Aloha in the Pacific Northwest.
When: 5-9 p.m. July 26, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. July 27, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. July 28.
Where: Esther Short Park, Columbia and West Eighth streets, Vancouver.
What: Workshops and classes on Polynesian culture, music, crafts, dance and history.
When: 9 a.m. and noon July 26.
Where: Clark College, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way, Vancouver.
Admission: $35 to $80, depending on workshop.
Did You Know?
The news buzz among visiting and local Hawaiians at the Four Days of Aloha Festival may well be a controversial proposal to build a huge new deep-space telescope atop Mauna Kea, a sacred mountain on Hawaii’s Big Island. Protesters have camped out at the foot of the mountain, preventing construction from proceeding. Here in Vancouver, Kaloku Holt, Ke Kukui Foundation executive director, has posted statements supporting the protest.